By Thomas F. Schwartz
Collaborating Collectors, the new temporary exhibit at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum, explores the collecting habits of Herbert and Lou Hoover. But it ultimately poses the question “What do you collect?” When someone posed that question to me, I gave an unhelpful answer: “dust.” But a more serious and thoughtful answer would also address the implicit question of “why” you collect certain things. The Chicago-based interior designer, Nate Berko, gave a useful way of looking at the exhibit: “I believe your home tells a story about who you are and who you aspire to be. We represent ourselves through the things we own. I don’t believe in trends. I believe in collecting things that you connect with. We should surround ourselves with things we care about, that have meaning.” In very real ways, Herbert and Lou Hoover collected items individually but more often collaboratively in things that represented the things and ideas they valued.
In the remarkable home design by Lou Hoover of their residence in Palo Alto, California, a space dubbed the “Belgium Room” was created to display many of the hundreds of decorated flour sacks and lace given to the Hoovers during World War I by grateful Belgians. These items were both deeply personal expressions of thanks by people who would have gone hungry or been deprived of the vital home industry of lace-making, but each item is also an expression of subversion against the German Army of occupation. Each flour sack and lace item represents the Belgian identity of a free and independent artisan. The most frequent images on the flour sacks and in the lace are the Belgian flag. A small number of flour sacks are always rotated on display in the permanent galleries. But the temporary exhibit features oversized items that are too large for the display cases in the permanent galleries. The range of artistic craftsmanship is visually stunning. Some are painted, some embroidered, and some with elaborate lace borders. All are invested with time, talent, and love.
A section of blue and white porcelains reflects a collaborative collecting passion that began in 1899 with their time in China. As newlyweds, the Hoovers immersed themselves into Chinese culture with Lou even hiring a tutor to teach her how to speak and write Mandarin. It was at this time they began collecting the famed blue and white porcelains, a technique refined and representative of the ancient Chinese culture. It was a collecting habit that Herbert Hoover continued beyond Lou’s death in 1944. Whether these beautiful objects brought back memories of the siege at Tientsin during the Boxer Rebellion or their travels in the lovely Chinese countryside, the pieces are a sight to behold.
A large number of paintings and other artwork represents the wide range of the Hoover’s interests. A number of works showing ships and fisherman not only brings to mind the type of travel the Hoovers used before commercial air travel provided an alternative to ships and passenger liners, but also Hoover’s favorite lifetime passion of fishing. A series of Southwestern American Indian scenes reflects Lou’s fascination with this region and its original inhabitants. Eleven of twelve paintings commissioned for the United States Food Administration led by Herbert Hoover highlight the importance of food conservation during World War I.
The Hoovers were readers and books were another passion they shared. Their work in translating De Re Metallica has been detailed in other blog posts. Hoover’s post World War II work frequently took him to Germany where he was given presentation copies of works by famous German authors in German, a language he could not read. Perhaps the highlight of this section is an illuminated manuscript book created by Belgian nuns reproducing a famous speech given by Cardinal Mercier during the German occupation. Each page is hand-painted calligraphy with decorative borders.
Lou Hoover’s seminal project in documenting the White House history and furnishings led her to descendants of President James Monroe. They allowed Lou to reproduce Monroe’s desk and side table. She made one reproduction set for the White House and kept another for herself. She also purchased a bureau in the 1920s that had decorative scenes of Holland. It went to the White House with them in 1929. These furnishings are shown in pictures from the Hoover White House as they were displayed and used during his presidency.
The exhibit ends with various necklaces with Egyptian motifs, probably purchased during the Hoovers December 1905 vacation in Cairo. A number of still photographs likely taken by Lou reside in one of her albums. Digital scans are projected on a screen, providing visitors with scenes of the pyramids, the Ruins of Memphis, and the sphinx.